A Scam for Every Season

It is the height of the holiday season and I had three interviews today about scams and a fourth one was just scheduled for next week. It is a time of joy and peace for most; for scammers, it is one of the busiest times of the year.

Why is that?

There are two reasons, really. One is just the nature of the holiday season – lots going on, people spending considerably more money than usual and charitable giving at its height. The overarching reason, though, is that scammers look for things they can “hang their hat on”, as my father would have said. They look for big events or times of year, or for other things that people value about themselves (demographics, military service, profession). Scammers look for things that people will identify with, that may make them lower their guard, just a bit. Once a person’s guard is down, that is when scammers know the have the best chance.

One of the most common examples is the holiday season. Everybody loves the holidays, right? As already stated, it is a time when many are particularly charitable, spending more money than usual, and looking for bargains. These are the bread and butter for scammers, and it is why we see so much scam activity during the holidays.

The holidays are a time when we see every type of scam you can imagine – fake charities, merchandise at incredible discounts that turn out not to be real, holiday-specific scams of every shape and size, and the list goes on and on. It is a time when we must all be extra cautious with both our money and our personal information, or risk getting a holiday surprise that none of us would ever choose.

There is a larger lesson, though, and that is the idea that scammers gravitate toward the sorts of things we have already discussed; they shape many of their scams around those things that make us comfortable and can make us lower our defenses. We live in a world that requires us to be vigilant. Does the offer seem to good to be true? It probably is. Have we checked out this deal or opportunity to make sure it is for real? We probably should.

Have a fantastic holiday, of course, but also let it be a reminder to stay on the lookout for scams. The more vigilant you are, the more questions you ask and the more verification you require before turning over your money or your personal information, the better off you will likely be.

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Don’t They Know Who I Am?!?

It was Thanksgiving morning. My wife and I were getting the big meal ready (okay, she was getting it ready and I was taste testing). Then, my phone started ringing with a call from Los Angeles. I do not really know anyone from Los Angeles, but I thought maybe it was someone calling to wish me a happy holiday.

Was it, in fact, a friend calling to wish me a happy Thanksgiving?

No.

In fact, it was someone claiming to be with “Windows Tech Support”, saying that he was calling because a problem had been detected with my computer and that he was calling to help me fix it, which he could do remotely if I would give him some information.

The biggest problem with this, of course, is that I do not have a Windows computer, and I knew right away that this was a common scam, in which the caller was trying to get remote access to my computer so he could steal my personal information or cause some other kind of mischief.

This is a common scam. Over 80% of the computer-owning public has a Windows machine, so the caller was just playing the odds by identifying himself as “Windows Tech Support”. He was hoping that I would take the claim at face value, give him information to help him gain remote access to my computer, and then his dirty work could to commence.

Didn’t this guy know that I am a regional director of BBB? Didn’t he know that I have read about and heard about this exact type of scam over and over again? No, he did not have any clue who I am. To him, I was just a name on a list, someone he could try to scam, or that he could just move on from if the scam did not work.

In the end, I hung up on him, reported the call on BBB Scam Tracker, and went about my business. I will never hear from the scammer again and he is on to his next 1000 victims.

There is no real lesson for me to learn, but the important lesson to share is that this type of scam is out there, and anyone can be the target. There is basically nothing any of us can do to avoid scams like this, but we need to know about it because people fall for it all the time. They get the call, give the caller some information from their computer, and then bad things are going to happen.

All we can do is know about it so we do not fall for it ourselves, and so we can warn others. For any scam, knowledge of what to look for is always the greatest defense.

Some of BBB’s Best Tips to Avoid Scams

We live in a world in which pretty much anyone can be scammed. At BBB, we see it every day, as our world speeds up; as we become more and more reliant on online communications; as scammers get smarter and more creative. Good people get scammed every day because they are trusting, because they are not paying enough attention, because they are in a hurry, and because they do not know what forms a scam might take.

That is why BBB spends so much time educating our communities about scams – because knowledge is the best weapon against scammers. The more we all know, and the more we are all paying attention, the less scammers will succeed

This list is certainly not all-inclusive, but the following is a list of some of the best tips BBB has seen for avoiding scams. If we would all follow these tips, many more scams would be foiled, every single day

  1. Never click a link in an e-mail message if you are not expecting it. Even if the e-mail looks like it is coming from someone you know, the e-mail address could be masked to look like it is coming from that person (this is surprisingly easy). If you get an e-mail with a link and you are not 100% sure of what it is, verify it with the sender before you click it, and delete it if you can’t verify it.
  2. Be wary of any e-mail or phone call from someone you do not know that is asking for money, for any reason. The key goal of so many scams is to get you to pay right away – over the phone or by clicking a link in an e-mail message. They can be incredibly clever and can take myriad forms. A call might seem like it is from a bill collector, or a government official, or a sales person, or a charity, or even someone you think you know (see our previous blog post about the grandparent scam). If someone is trying to get you to pay over the phone or through an e-mail message, make 100% sure it is for real before you make a payment.
  3. Be careful about providing your personal information to anyone. Scammers use all sorts of tactics to get your social security number, birth date, bank account numbers, and other valuable pieces of information. With just a few key pieces of data, your identity can be stolen by those who know how to do it. Any time you are asked for any sort of personal information that might be sensitive, make sure you verify whomever is asking.
  4. If you decide to make a purchase without being 100% secure, use your credit card, instead of cash or your debit card. Credit card companies typically offer greater fraud protections than debit cards and make it easier for you to recover your money if you fall victim to a scam or even just to a business that does not provide what they promise.
  5. Never, ever wire money to someone until you have verified that this is the right thing to do. Really, any request for you to wire money to absolutely anyone should immediately trigger you to investigate further. Wiring is one of the most common ways for scammers to request money, because it is so hard to recover or even identify who the final recipient might be. For example, one of the most common business scams is for someone to mask an e-mail address to look like it is coming from someone you know (a friend, family member, co-worker, etc.), and then ask you to wire money because of some personal or business emergency.
  6. Do some extra research to verify any website with which you are not familiar, before buying anything from it. It is just so easy to create a professional looking, but fake, website, that can then be used to sell fake or shoddy products, or to simply take your money and never deliver anything at all.
  7. Check out the BBB Scam Tracker for scams in your area, or anywhere in the country, and share it with people you know. The best way to avoid a scam is to know about it, and the BBB Scam Tracker is one of the most comprehensive sources around for what is happening across the country. You can narrow it down to your state, town, or even zip code, and learn about what has been reported close to you.

There are other tips for avoiding scams, and BBB certainly encourages you to visit www.midmobbb.org to find more information about what might be out there, how to avoid it, and what to do if you or someone you know falls victim.

My First Scam Story

Sometimes, I think back on the very first scam that touched my life. It was maybe ten years ago and my stepson – we’ll call him Johnny – wanted to sell an old set of electronic drum cymbals online. He was so excited because within just a few hours of posting his ad, he received an offer to buy them for the $300 he was asking.

That is where the trouble started.

Within just a few days, he received a check in the mail for not $300, but $1200. Being an honest kid, he sent a text to the buyer to let him now that a check had been sent for the wrong amount.

“Oh thank you so much for your honesty,” came the reply. “That check was sent by accident. Let’s do this; here are the instructions to wire money through Western Union. Please keep your $300, plus an extra $100 for your trouble, and wire us the $800 difference.”

Johnny was excited that he was both selling his cymbals and getting an extra $100 for very little effort. The only hitch was that he really did not know how to wire money. So he called his mother. Thank goodness.

Johnny’s mother smelled a rat and suggested he bring the check over to our house so we could take a closer look. If nothing was wrong with it, then we would help him wire the money and all would be well.

At first glance, the check looked real. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that there were little things wrong with it. There was something a little bit not right about the signature; the address of the bank seemed a little odd; and there were a couple of other details that were just slightly off.

I did a quick Web search for the routing number to make sure it matched the bank name, and it did. Then I called the bank to check on the account number and they told me that it was not one they had at their bank. If Johnny managed to get his bank to cash the check, it would be rejected when the bank listed on the check received it. Once that happened, Johnny’s bank would come back to him to reclaim their money, and he would be out most of the money because he would have wired it to the “buyer” of his cymbals. Plus, he would have mailed the cymbals, so he would probably have lost them, too.

Thankfully – since Johnny did not know how to wire money and asked his mother about it – we caught the scam in time and nobody actually lost any money. Now that I work with Better Business Bureau, I understand that this is actually a very common type of scam, happening all over the country, basically all the time.

Probably the most important lessons to take away from this story are these:

  • Be wary of any opportunity that seems too good to be true.
  • If someone you do not know wants you to wire them money, it should be a huge red flag because wired money is almost impossible to recover; this is a common request of scammers.
  • If your gut tells you something might be wrong, listen! Either walk away or, at least, look into things more closely.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. Another set of eyes on a situation can be very helpful.

BBB Columbia’s First TORCH Awards

Last week, BBB Columbia held our very first TORCH Awards ceremony. This is BBB’s big, annual event, held in BBB regions all across the country. In St. Louis, they sell out and have around 500 people in attendance; we did not expect anywhere near that many (considering our population is a tiny fraction of St. Louis’s), but we knew it needed to be a big, successful event as we continue to expand our presence in Mid-Missouri.

The TORCH Awards is such a great event because the focus is on recognizing businesses who display exemplary commitment to integrity and customer service. This was our first event in Columbia, but we had TORCH Award winners the five previous years, chosen and recognized in St. Louis. This was the first year that recipients would be chosen in Columbia and recognized at our own ceremony, here in town. It really was a big deal.

We decided to recognize four businesses, chosen from community nominations. Most TORCH Award ceremonies also choose one or more charities; we decided not to do that this year because ours is still a fairly new region – just six years old – and we are still building our base of Accredited non-profit organizations.

One of my favorite features of the awards is that past winners choose the winners for future years. So, instead of staff or some sort of community committee making the choice, a group of business leaders who uniquely understand and feel the value of the awards do it. Isn’t that cool?

This year, we have such a great group of recipients, ranging from the fairly small to one of the largest businesses accredited by BBB. Our winners this year are Manor Roofing & Restoration; MidwayUSA; Tami R. Benus, CPA; and White Dog Promotions. For those of us in Columbia, these are well known companies who are respected both for the way they conduct business and for the work they do in our community.

Thankfully, the awards luncheon was a huge success and really exemplified the high quality the recipients deserved. The Champagne Ballroom was filled to capacity at a little over 100; the atmosphere and food were incredible; and the program was almost surprisingly enjoyable (it was a pretty standard awards luncheon format, but the pace was good and it seemed like people really enjoyed themselves).

At the luncheon, the thing that really struck me was the emotion I felt from the winners as they accepted their awards. It obviously really meant something to them – accepting an award for integrity and commitment to customer service. Isn’t that cool? It really is an award about character and values, things that stir emotion in a lot of us.

Thankfully, this year’s event provides an excellent foundation for building what we hope will become one of the marquis events in the Mid-Missouri business community. That is our goal, one more contribution to BBB’s mission of building trust in the marketplaces.

BBB Stands for the Small Town Values of My Childhood

Sure, as regional director of Better Business Bureau, I get a paycheck and benefits and everything you would expect from a professional job. Also, there are a lot of nice people here, who are generally pretty excited about making the world a little better, so that makes it more fun.

I feel like I could find another job with these qualities, though, so these are not the reasons I am committed to BBB in the way that I am. The fact is that I am a true believer. I have, as they say, “drank the Kool-Aid” that is the philosophy of BBB.

The philosophical foundation of BBB is incredibly simple, really. It is all about trust. That’s even the slogan, “Start with Trust.”

For many, that is just a slogan; it is a thing you read and agree with and do not think much more about it. For me, though, it very much hearkens back to my small town, pretty rural roots. There are plenty of things to complain about when you are from a small town, but one of the great things is that trust is a central, essential value – even today, we say things like, “my word is my bond” and “a handshake should be as good as any contract.”

Since you kind of know everyone, you learn quickly who is trustworthy and who is not, and the ones who are not tend to have a much harder time getting along in life.

Now that I live in a much larger city — Columbia, Missouri – I do not know most of the people I encounter or with whom I do business, and I never will. Trust is still important, but it feels a little different to me, a little more distant.

So Better Business Bureau has a fairly unique appeal to me, as someone who cares about trust in a very personal way. BBB was actually started around the turn of the century, by the business community, as a mechanism to start setting standards of behavior for itself. They wanted the world of business to be one in which people could trust each other, and they knew that there needed to be some entity to actively promote that value.

That’s how you get BBB. You start with trust, and you get a wide range of free services to promote and facilitate trust between businesses and consumers. You get an organization that basically spends all day talking about the importance of trust. To this small town boy, that is something pretty special, and I am proud to be a part of it.

In the Wake of Criminal Charges, BBB Tips on Hiring Contractors

Yesterday, the Missouri attorney general filed criminal charges against a contractor for scamming homeowners. The filing included multiple felony counts of financial exploitation of the elderly, stealing, and unlawful merchandising practices.

According to the attorney general, the contractor made false promises to do roofing and remodeling work for consumers. He demanded significant upfront payment and then, in most cases, performed no work and provided no materials. The total loss is more than $20,000 from seven consumers.

Reading about this, it seems like a good time to offer some BBB tips for hiring contractors. These are especially important when dealing with big jobs and large sums of money.

  • It is a good idea to get at least three bids for any major job.
  • Research the business and owners carefully before signing a contract or paying any money. Check the company’s BBB Business Review at www.midmobbb.org or by calling 573-886-8965.
  • Ask for references and contact them.
  • Before paying anything, make sure you have a signed contract outlining exactly what work is to be done, a timetable for completion and an explanation of what happens if either the business or consumer reneges on the agreement.
  • Ask the contractor for proof that he or she is bonded and insured.
  • Pay by credit card whenever possible in case you need to challenge the payment.
  • Do not pay everything in advance.  It is a good rule to pay a portion when you sign the contract, and the final payment only after you are satisfied with the completed work.
  • When the work is completed and the contractor has been paid, make sure you have received lien waivers showing that subcontractors and materials suppliers have been paid for the job.

For more tips and information about making good consumer choices, visit www.midmobbb.org.

Scams – Even the Governor is Not Immune

One of my soapboxes at BBB is that scammers can strike anybody, and none of us is immune. Approached in just the right way, at just the right time, any of us can fall victim to a scam. In my time at BBB, I have seen incredibly well-informed people, including local business leaders, lose money or personal financial information because they did not realize they were being scammed until it was too late.

Fortunately, this story ends happily, but it illustrates that absolutely anyone can become the target of a scammer.

In this case, what happened is that the Governor of Missouri actually received a letter in the mail, saying that he owed a debt to a company he had never heard of, and threatening him with a lawsuit or even potential arrest if he did not pay right away.

This is an extremely common type of scam, by the way. Thousands of people receive letters, email messages, or phone calls with exactly this sort of messaging. The goal is to get some combination of money and personal financial data (which then might be used for additional scams).

Of course, the Governor knew he did not owe the debt and immediately turned the letter over to the state’s Attorney General. With some investigation, it was soon discovered that the sender of the letter was a repeat scammer who had been convicted of a similar crime once before. Today, the person who sent the letter – from Michigan – is facing both criminal and civil charges, once again.

This story is interesting because it involves such a high profile figure and because there is a happy ending, but this sort of situation is incredibly common, and they do not always end happily. People engaged in scams like this are typically making thousands of contacts at a time, knowing that a tiny percentage may fall for it and they can get money and/or personal financial information from them.

Fortunately, the Governor set a perfect example for the rest of us. First, he was aware of his financial situation, knew he could not really owe the debt, and did not fall victim. Second, he immediately turned the letter over to a proper authority, creating the opportunity to catch the perpetrator and to warn others of the scam. In this case, he turned it over to the Attorney General, but he might also have called Better Business Bureau or local law enforcement.

For more information about scams in Missouri and all around the country, check out the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker at www.bbb.org/scamtracker/us/. Scam Tracker is a powerful tool that displays details about scams, including location, all over the country.

Free Services of BBB, Part 1

Did you know that BBB is a non-profit organization that offers most of its services for free? People sometimes think that BBB is a government agency or maybe even a business, but we are a non-profit whose goal is to make the world a better place by creating greater trust in the marketplace. Pretty cool, huh?

BBB is almost entirely funded through our business accreditation fees – allowing businesses to display their accreditation and show their commitment to building trust in the marketplace. Those funds allow us to provide a wide range of services to both consumers and businesses.

BBB Business Directory

These days, our business directory is primarily online, and allows users – absolutely anyone who can get on the Internet – to search our list of companies by name or category. This way, they can quickly find out if a company is accredited and what its BBB rating might be, among other things. Companies are included in our directory whether they are accredited or not, so it really is a fantastic source of information about most businesses.

It is important to note, by the way, that the directory is not just online. From the beginning, consumers have been able to call in and check out a particular business, or ask for a list of Accredited Businesses in a specific category (asking for a list of BBB accredited plumbers, for example). This service is still available and people use it all the time.

BBB Guide to Trustworthy Businesses

In Mid-Missouri, we publish the annual BBB Guide to Trustworthy Businesses, a tabloid with a complete listing of all BBB Accredited Businesses in our region. The guide is distributed through the newspaper with the largest circulation in the region, the Columbia Daily Tribune, and at coffee shops, restaurants, and other businesses. It is a great resource for checking the accreditation of over 500 businesses

BBB Complaint Reporting

Perhaps BBB is best known for our complaint process, allowing consumers to register a formal complaint about a business they feel has not met the commitment they have made with their product or service. Those complaints and how they are resolved – or not resolved – are incorporated into the company’s business record, available through the BBB directory, and other consumers can see how the company handles complaints.

BBB Complaint Resolution

Being able to register a complaint to a neutral third party is great, but BBB service gets even better, acting as a neutral third-party that can help resolve the complaint. Often, complaints are resolved pretty quickly; once a company knows about a complaint, they frequently work with the consumer to address the situation. Many times, everyone is able move forward, feeling good about the way things worked out; sometimes, BBB looks at the situation and decides that the business has done everything that could reasonably be expected of them, even if the consumer is not 100% satisfied at the end.

Sometimes, settling the complaint requires more. Without BBB, these cases often end up in court. BBB, though, offers free mediation, and even legally binding arbitration – services that typically cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Next week, we will learn about even more free services offered by Mid-Missouri Better Business Bureau.

Important Things to Know About Scams

As regional director of Mid-Missouri BBB, I spend a significant amount of my day talking about scams – with people who contact us; on radio and TV programs; in front of groups; and in other ways. In the process, it often seems as though I have seen pretty much everything – until I am reminded that there is always some new twist on an old scam.

What follows is a list of personal observations stemming from that experience. It is in no particular order and includes lessons learned, tips to keep from getting scammed, and things I have found to be true. Hopefully, it will be helpful.

  1. It is important to know about scams, not just for yourself, but so you can protect others in your life that might fall victim.
  2. Even really smart people can fall victim to the right kind of scam.
  3. A request from someone to wire money is a classic red flag that you may be seeing a scam. Once money I wired, it is almost impossible to recover.
  4. Tip: Never wire money to someone you do not know unless you are 100% sure that everything is legitimate.
  5. Scammers do not necessarily want your money, at first. They may want personal information that they can use to get to your money at a later time, or to steal your identity.
  6. There are scams specifically created for every time of year (holidays, seasons, etc.).
  7. There are scams specifically targeting every demographic (women, veterans, seniors, students, you name it).
  8. The Internet and social media have made it exponentially easier to commit a scam.
  9. People can fake any e-mail address pretty easily, so it might look like you are hearing from someone you trust (a big-name company or organization, your employer, or even a friend), when it is really someone trying to get your money or personal information.
  10. Tip: If you are buying something over the Internet (or even in person) and have any reason at all to be concerned, use a credit card (as opposed to debit), because the protections in cases of fraud – and the ability to get your money back – are typically greater.
  11. Follow your instincts. Often, people feel like something is wrong with a deal that turns out to be a scam, but they do not listen to that feeling and fall victim to something they could have avoided. If you have any cause for concern at all, look more closely before taking any action, or just walk away.
  12. Tip: If you receive an e-mail or see something on a website that might be a scam, look up the phone number separately – rather than using a number that has been provided – and make the company or organization involved. This can often be any easy way to confirm that something is not right.
  13. Tip: Never, ever click a Web link that you are not expecting, even if you know the sender, until you know for sure that it is okay. This is the most common way for someone to get into your computer to deliver a virus, gain access to your computer files, or even completely take control of your computer.
  14. Cell phones (smart phones) are like little computers, and are susceptible to essentially the same issues as computers – they can be given a virus; be taken over by someone in a remote location; or targeted by scammers in countless other ways.
  15. Your parents were right, “If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is!”

This list is hardly exhaustive of all the things I have learned about scams, but it provides a good foundation that everyone should have. Follow this list and stay alert, and you, your money, and your personal information will be much safer.